Your horse’s health: seven subtle signs to look out for

Your horse’s health: seven subtle signs to look out for

Does your horse stretch in an unusual way, clamp his tail, grind his teeth or constantly shift his weight? Petplan Equine vet Gil Riley explains what this odd body language might mean.

Your horse’s quirky habits add to his character, but sometimes those funny mannerisms might actually be pointing to an underlying condition. So how can you tell the difference between an odd, but harmless, behaviour and a sign that something is wrong?

‘As long as your horse is sound, eating happily and performing well, then an established habit is probably just part of his personality,’ says Petplan Equine veterinary expert Gil Riley. ‘But some behaviours could indicate an underlying problem and shouldn’t be dismissed without further investigation.’

If you spot any of the signs we discuss below, make sure to mention them to your vet. ‘These signs could form an important part of your horse’s bigger health picture, so trust your instincts, no matter how small something may seem,’ Gil stresses.

1. Resting a foreleg

It’s unusual for a healthy horse to rest his forelimb. If your horse is doing this, it could point to pain in the leg or hoof.

‘A horse that bends a foreleg at the knee and rests on his toe could be feeling discomfort in the soft tissue structures, such as the tendons, at the back of the leg,’ says Gil. ‘Osteoarthritis in the knee is another reason why he might be unwilling to take full weight on the joint.

‘Lifting a heel could mean infection or bruising in this area, while a pointed forelimb could be an attempt to relieve pressure on the toe where the laminae are concentrated,’ he adds, explaining that laminitis causes inflammation of these sensitive tissue layers. ‘Other signs that something is amiss may include the affected area being hot to the touch, being able to feel a bounding pulse underneath the skin, or signs of pain with the use of hoof testers or lameness at walk or trot.’ Have these checked out by your vet as soon as possible.

2. Strange stretches

If your horse stretches his limbs exaggeratedly, or in a cat-like way, this could indicate abdomen or back problems.

‘Stretching is typically a way of decreasing pressure in the stomach or intestines,’ Gil explains. ‘So if you see this in your horse, it may be because he has ulcers or low-grade, grumbling enteritis.’ However, it could also be to do with your horse’s spine. ‘Thankfully, modern imaging methods mean that we can now investigate the spine more easily,’ says Gil. ‘We’re also more aware of sacroiliac joint problems and disc diseases such as spondylosis, both of which might cause a horse to stretch in an attempt to relieve pain.’

Gil suggests that you ask your vet to give your horse a general health check, and also ensure his saddle isn’t causing any issues. Unless ulcers are suspected, a short course of prescribed pain relief could help to see if the behaviour changes. ‘Keep in mind, though, that stretching can just be one of your horse’s idiosyncrasies or a natural sign of ageing,’ he adds. ‘There’s no doubt that joints and tissues stiffen as a horse progresses through his teens.’

3. Discomfort at speed

Trot and canter can cause acid to slosh around in your horse’s stomach, which can irritate any ulcers he may have.

‘Funny behaviour at faster paces might point to the presence of stomach ulcers, especially if your horse has also become picky about eating and is favouring hard feed over hay,’ says Gil, who says that a resistance to girthing, a dull coat or poor body condition are all further signs of ulcers. ‘Your vet may suggest a gastroscopy, where a flexible, fibre-optic endoscope is passed up one of your horse’s nostrils, and down into his stomach, to view its lining.’

4. Perching

Resting his hindquarters on bedding banks, stable walls or field fences could mean that your horse is stiff or sore.

‘If your horse is suffering low-level pain in his feet or joints, he may adjust the angle of his limbs to find a more comfortable position that gives some relief,’ says Gil. ‘Horses are flight animals, so adrenalin can disguise your horse’s pain for a short period. But chronic, lingering discomfort will catch up with him. It’s often while he’s at rest or in the security of his stable that he’ll reveal these kinds of signs.’

5. Tail clamping

The tail serves as natural protection, so any reluctance to have it handled could offer clues to your horse’s wellbeing.

‘Clamping can be a nervous response, perhaps because the horse has been traumatised,’ Gil explains. ‘But there are also clinical reasons for tail fussiness: sweet itch is one possibility, while grey horses are susceptible to developing skin tumours called melanomas in the under-tail area.

‘Another likely cause is an infestation of pinworm, a hind-gut parasite that lays eggs around the anus and causes constant irritation.’

6. Tooth grinding

Grinding of the cheek teeth, known as bruxism, often goes along with typical stress-related behaviour such as crib-biting or weaving. But it can also be a response to pain elsewhere in the body.

‘There’s often an association between tooth grinding and stomach ulcers or oral discomfort,’ Gil explains. ‘While there’s a popular myth that your horse’s teeth will keep growing throughout his life, this isn’t actually the case. The tooth is slowly emerging from a reserve that will eventually run out, so it’s important to treat any underlying causes of grinding.’

7. Shifting weight

We all know a horse that simply can’t stand still, but constant shifting of bodyweight is different to general restlessness or misbehaviour.

‘It can be difficult to pinpoint an exact cause,’ says Gil. ‘If your horse’s fidgeting isn’t accompanied by lameness, don’t be too concerned. It makes sense, though, to tell your vet about subtle signs like this if soundness becomes an issue. Some breeds and individual characters are more stoical, so it comes down to knowing your horse and what’s normal for him. If you do feel something is out of the ordinary, don’t hesitate – get a professional opinion as soon as you can.’